Philosophical Movie Review of “Waking Life” (2001)

Waking Life (2001)

What are we really?

Who are we as people? Where are we in space and time? What are people? What is personhood? What is time defined by? These are all metaphysical questions suggested and brought forth over centuries by many different philosophers, and so far, all we can do is hold an opinion on the theories that metaphysics suggests.

In Waking Life (2001) directed by Richard Linklater, a nameless young man finds himself trapped in a continuous loop of dreams, after returning to Austin, Texas after a class trip, and is subsequently hit by a car. Throughout the first half of the film, the young man, played by Wiley Wiggins, walks and levitates from one dream to the next, all while listening to the theories about human existence, metaphysics, and free will from philosophers and intellectuals as he passes through to each dream. Gradually, the unnamed character begins to realize that he is in a perpetual, never ending dream. He tries to wake himself up, but to no avail he is unable to awaken himself, and presumes himself dead in a way. Eventually, accepting the realization that he must be stuck in his own imagination, he begins to converse with other characters. In the final scene of the film, the unnamed character converses with a character who looks very similarly to him. The last conversation with this character reveals that the unnamed man understands that reality may only be one instant, and that an individual may misinterpret this as time and life, and that dreams offer a glimpse into the infinite nature of reality.

Of course, a movie about dreams is going to suggest philosophical conundrums such as the distinction between appearance and reality. This can all be linked back to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the people or characters in the story are chained to a wall, where all they see for most of their lives is the shadows against a dimly-lit rock wall. However, one person managed to break free, and was able to see what was the cause of those shadows. If the person who managed to break free was you, would you perceive this new, bright world as more “real” than what you thought the world was in your dimly-lit cave? Could the people who remained within the cave be able to believe in your story that there is a greater world outside of what they have known for most of their lives? These are the questions that are asked when trying to figure out the difference between reality and appearance. In Waking LIfe, the unnamed man is unable to tell that he is in a perpetual dream for the first portion of the movie, which begs the question, did he even know he was in a dream? Was he able to perceive this dream-like state as his own reality?

The film also suggests the philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism. In the second scene of the movie, where one of the characters, played by Bill Wise, picks up the protagonist in his car and tells him to “go with the flow”. At this stage, the protagonist is in a stage of departure, slipping in and out of consciousness but he still perceives it to be his reality. Taoists see the universe as held together by the Life Energy, balanced by the Tao symbol. The self has no self-identity, and in Buddhism, the universe is constantly changing and flowing. The use of the phrase “go with the flow” suggests that while the protagonist is in his dream like state, to just go with whatever comes at him while he is in this dream loop.

The film Waking Life (2001) directed by Richard Linklater is a fantastic film, presented at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, and nominated for many awards regarding its controversial and in depth topic of the appearance of dreams and reality. But aside from an animated movie, how do humans really perceive their reality? When we are dreaming, is that reality, or is that only a view of another reality separate from this one? Waking Life suggests that when humans dream, we are misinterpreting time, space and life altogether, because our dreams may offer a glimpse into the eternity that is reality.


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